21 March 2011

Hats off to Haley Barbour

The Mississippi governor excites me much less than Mitch Daniels, but Daniels' old Reagan administration buddy is beginning to win me over.

With Daniels busy in Indiana, Tim Pawlenty tacking hard to the right and John Thune having announced he won't run at all, there is an enormous gap on the center-right of the Republican electorate. Is Barbour pouncing?

If Daniels doesn't run, there is no candidate outside of Ron Paul who will argue for an end to the perpetual warfare state, push for cuts at the Pentagon and talk seriously about fiscal responsibility. These are fundamentally conservative ideals, and mainstream Republicans -- even "frontrunners" like Mitt Romney -- won't touch them.

On March 15, Barbour made waves by pushing for cuts at the Pentagon and questioning why American troops remain in Afghanistan nearly a decade after 9/11. On March 19, he delivered a scathing rebuke of the Obama administration's foray into Libya's civil war.

His best line thus far has been this: "Anybody who says you can't save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon. We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility on anything else."

Again, it's our belief that there exists a huge swath of serious Republican primary voters who are interested in a responsible message such as this. We thought it would be carried by Pawlenty, who has a sensible, blue-collar appeal, but he's scampered to the far right of the party on almost every major issue. Among other things, Pawlenty has publicly stated he won't cut a dime from the Pentagon.

Barbour and Daniels have said they don't want to run against each other. With Daniels busy in Indiana, can it be that Barbour, of all people, is rising?

The Cato Institute has been mildly critical of Barbour's record over the years, remarking that despite his conservative reputation, "his tax and spending record over seven years as governor has not been very conservative." Cato criticizes the fact that Barbour passed a cigarette tax and a tax on hospitals in 2008-2009, but later admitted that Mississippi was running short on revenue.

That said, Barbour's biggest negatives are less policy and more image-driven. A former lobbyist, he has accurately described himself as fat, white and Southern. In a party that absolutely must move beyond the stereotype embodied by George W. Bush, will voters in the general election go for a portly, white-haired former lobbyist who speaks with a thick southern drawl, no matter how competent or gregarious he might be?

Regardless, Barbour's recent statements demonstrate a seriousness not only about the size and scope of America's fiscal problems, but also about the folly of Bushian interventionism overseas.

These are debates that the Republican Party simply must have, and if Haley Barbour is the messenger, then so be it.

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